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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Trey Graham is a theater critic for NPR. And it's a big night on Broadway. The Tony Awards are being handed out this evening. For our series, Three Books, where writers pick three books on one theme, Trey recommends three books that feature offstage Broadway sagas. He thinks they're worth a trophy or two.

TREY GRAHAM: I've always wondered, why don't the Tonys hand out awards for the best backstage dramas? You know, the stories that play out before opening night, among the writers, producers, directors and actors? Trust me, what happens backstage rivals anything ever performed in front of a live audience. Well, until that day, here are three applause-worthy books about what goes on behind the scenes on Broadway.

First up, if you're going to write an unflattering biography of the meanest man in showbiz, you might as well go for broke with the title, right? That's what the critic Howard Kissel did with "The Abominable Showman." It's 1993 bio of legendary producer David Merrick.

Merrick was the guy behind all kinds of huge crowd-pleasers, "Hello Dolly," "Oliver," "42nd Street." If it sang and danced, he probably paid for it. But Merrick also had a thing for prestige shows: Tom Stoppard's breakout play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," it was one that proved Merrick had a taste for good material to go with his unerring nose for publicity and his famous penchant for public feuds.

The author respects David Merrick as an impresario, and he understands how much he truly loved the theater. So, reading about Merrick's excesses in "The Abominable Showman" is like watching a great actor lose track of his lines on stage: It's startling and uncomfortably entertaining and kind of sad.

Garson Kanin was one of the Broadway directors that David Merrick clashed with loudly and often. And there's rarely been a more vivid picture of the business than Kanin's novel, "Smash." It's a steamy, smart story set in the decidedly swinging '70s about the making of a Broadway musical.

And "Smash" is chock-full of backstage drama: alcoholic choreographers, feuding songwriters, and more than one instance of what theater people call the showmance, you know, those white-hot affairs that burn out right after closing night.

Now, how much of this juicy business is based on real backstage stories? Anybody's guess. But Kanin was there for decades, and his passion for showbiz is cooked into this book. By the time his fictional musical is ready for its opening night, you'll want it to be a smash as much as its badly behaved creators do.

Speaking of badly behaved, have you ever wondered how Broadway producers can nick you for 100 bucks a ticket and still moan about the grim state of their business? "The Season" is the insider guide you've been dying for.

William Goldman's book is a chronicle of the Broadway season of 1967, a true story of that year's hits and flops plus expert commentary on how they got that way.

I have to confess that at four decades old, some of the stuff here feels a little dated. But there are fantastic, stranger-than-fiction reports about the crazy gambles theater people make and the disasters that can result

And my favorite thing in "The Season" is this claim, I think. It's both completely maddening and the truest thing I've heard in nearly two decades of writing about theater. There are no rules on Broadway, says Goldman, and one of them is this: Art must be both fresh and inevitable. You must surprise an audience in an expected way. That is insane. It's impossible. And that's why suddenly all the wild stories in my three favorite backstage books make a kind of sense because if that's how to succeed in show business, can you really blame show people for acting out?

LYDEN: Trey Graham is a theater critic and an arts editor here at NPR. And we'll be live-blogging the Tonys tonight on npr.org. So, fire up the laptop and read along.

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